Women Who Shaped Modern Photography
Female authorship gives meaning to the images in “The New Woman Behind the Camera” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an inspired and inspiring exhibition.
Tsuneko Sasamoto, one of Japan’s first female photojournalists, as captured by an unknown photographer in 1940.Credit...Tsuneko Sasamoto/Japan Professional Photographers Society
July 11, 2021, 2:30 p.m. ET
The New Woman Behind the Camera
NYT Critic's Pick
Sometime in the 1930s, the Hungarian photographer Anna Barna shot “Onlooker,” a picture of a boy standing on a chair seen from behind as he peers over a palisade.
As his shadow stretches out across the planks blocking his way, it takes the shape of a bearded profile that reads as a second “onlooker” in the shot. A bit further off stands yet a third “looker” who, though quite invisible in the image, was very much present in the mind of any prewar viewer who saw the shot’s photo credit: That looker is Anna Barna, a woman who has dared to pick up the camera that would normally have been held by a man. Like all the camera-wielding women of her era, Barna’s bold move gave her a powerful cultural presence.
That presence is on display in “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” an inspired and inspiring exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from July 2-Oct. 3. In late October, it moves on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Curated by Andrea Nelson, of the NGA, the show has been installed at the Met by Mia Fineman.
The more than 200 pictures on view, taken from the 1920s through the ’50s, let us watch as women everywhere become photo pros. I guess some of their shots could have been snapped by men, but female authorship shaped what these images meant to their contemporaries. It shapes what we need to make of them now, as we grasp the challenges their makers faced.
Dorothea Lange, “Japanese-American owned grocery store, Oakland, California,” 1942.Credit...Dorothea Lange/National Gallery of Art
The Met shows women photographing everything from factories to battles to the oppressed, but also gowns and children and other traditionally “feminine” subjects. Sometimes the goal is straight documentation: Figures like Dorothea Lange in the United States and Galina Sanko in the Soviet Union recorded the worlds they moved through, often at the request of their governments. But many of their sisters prefer the aggressive viewpoints and radical lightings of what was then called the New Vision, as developed at the Bauhaus and other hot spots of modern style. It was to sight what jazz was to sound.
That made the New Vision a perfect fit for the New Woman, a term that went global early in the 20th century to describe all the many women who took on roles and responsibilities — new personas and even new powers — they’d rarely had before. When a New Woman took up photography, she often turned her New Vision on herself, as one of the modern world’s most striking creations.
A self-portrait by the American photographer Alma Lavenson leaves out everything but her hands and the camera they’re holding; the only thing we need to know is that Lavenson is in control of this machine, and therefore of the vision it captures.
The German photographer Ilse Bing shoots into the hinged mirrors on a vanity, giving us both profile and head-on views of her face and of the Leica that almost hides it. Since antiquity, the mirror had been a symbol of woman and her vanities; Bing claims that old symbol for herself, making it yield a new image.
Ilse Bing, “Self-Portrait with Leica,” 1931.Credit...Ilse Bing Estate
The mirror deployed by the German Argentine photographer Annemarie Heinrich is a silvered sphere; capturing herself and her sister in it, she depicts the fun-house pleasures, and distortions, of being a woman made New.
Heinrich’s European peers sometimes go further in disturbing their self-presentation. In “Masked Self-Portrait (No. 16)” Gertrud Arndt double- or maybe triple-exposes her face, as though to convey the troubled identity she’s taken on as a woman who dares to photograph. (Multiple exposure is almost a hallmark of New Woman photographers; maybe that shouldn’t surprise us.) In a collage titled “I.O.U. (Self-Pride),” the French photographer Claude Cahun presents herself as 11 different masked faces, surrounded by the words “Under this mask, another mask. I’ll never be done lifting off all these faces.”
It’s as though the act of getting behind a camera turns any New Woman into an ancestor and avatar of Cindy Sherman, trying on all sorts of models for gender.
If there’s one problem with this show, it’s that it mostly gives us women who succeeded in achieving the highest levels of excellence, barely hinting at the much greater number of women who were prevented from reaching their creative goals by the rampant sexism of their era: talented women whose places in a photo school were given to men instead, or who were streamed into the lowest or most “feminine” tiers of the profession — retouching, or cheap kiddie portraits — or who were never promoted above studio assistant. It’s a problem that bedevils all attempts at recovering the lost art of the disadvantaged: By telling the same stories of success that you do with white males, you risk making it look as though others were given the same chance to rise.
A quite straight shot of the Chinese photojournalist Niu Weiyu may best capture what it really meant for the New Woman to start taking pictures. As snapped by her colleague Shu Ye, Niu stands perched with her camera at the edge of a cliff. Every female photographer adopted this daredevil pose, at least in cultural terms, just by clicking a shutter.
The photojournalist Niu Weiyu with her camera, c. 1960, by Shu Ye.Credit...Gao Fan & Niu Weiyu Foundation
Several of the women featured at the Met actually took over studios originally headed by husbands or fathers. In the Middle East and Asia, this gave them access to a reality that men could not document: Taken in 1930s Palestine, a photo by an entrepreneur who styled herself as “Karimeh Abbud, Lady Photographer” shows three women standing before the camera with complete self-confidence — the youngest smiles broadly into the lens — in a relaxed shot that a man would have been unlikely to capture.
Gender was almost as powerfully in play for women in the West. If taking up a camera was billed as “mannish,” many a New Woman in Europe was happy to go with that billing: Again and again, they portray themselves coiffed with the shortest of bobs, sometimes so short they read as male styles. Cahun, who at times was almost buzz-cut, once wrote “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
Margaret Bourke-White, an American photographer who achieved true celebrity, shoots herself in a bob long enough to just about cover her ears, but this almost girlish style is more than offset by manly wool slacks. (In the 1850s, Rosa Bonheur had to get a police license to wear pants when she went to draw the horse-breakers of Paris. As late as 1972, my grandmother, born into the age of the New Woman, boasted of the courage she’d recently mustered to start wearing pants to work.)
A New Woman clicking the shutter might seem almost as much on display as any subject before her lens. Bourke-White’s photo of the Fort Peck dam graced the cover of Life magazine’s first modern issue, in 1936 , and it got that play in part because it had been shot by her: The editors go on about that “surprising” fact as they introduce their new magazine, and how they were “unable to prevent Bourke-White from running away with their first nine pages.”
Lola Álvarez Bravo, “In Her Own Prison,” c. 1950.Credit...Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundation
When a subject is in fact another woman, shooter and sitter can collapse into one. Lola Álvarez Bravo, the great Mexican photographer, once took a picture of a woman with shadows crisscrossing her face, titling it “In Her Own Prison.” As a photographic Everywoman, Álvarez Bravo comes off as in that same jail.
To capture the predicament of women in Catholic Spain, Kati Horna double-exposed a girl’s face onto the barred windows beside a cathedral; it’s hard not to see the huge eye that looks out at us from behind those bars as belonging to Horna herself, peering through the viewfinder.
For centuries before they went New, women had been objectified and observed as few men were likely to be. Picking up the camera didn’t pull eyes away from a New Woman; it could put her all the more clearly on view. But thanks to photography, she could begin to look back, with power, at the world around her.
The New Woman Behind the Camera
Through Oct. 3, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, metmuseum.org. 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.